India education: Opening the doors to foreign universities?


NEW DELHI, India — Since taking office in late May, Kapil Sibal, India's minister in charge of higher education, has become the government's most aggressive champion of opening the country's doors to foreign universities.

In an interview last month, Sibal talked about why he thinks India can no longer afford to turn its back on foreign providers. And he outlined the kinds of regulations that will most likely govern such institutions should a much-debated bill on the subject finally pass India's parliament in the coming months.

India's current laws allow foreign colleges to offer programs in India, but only in conjunction with domestic academic institutions.

Sibal stressed that there are no "preconditions" for foreign colleges that wish to enter the Indian market. "I think any proposal that benefits us and those who want to come in are welcome," he said. "We will of course examine those proposals, and we have to make sure … that quality institutions come in. They should not be looking for quick profits and moving out."

Responding to concerns that some foreign institutions have had about the prospect of dealing with India's notoriously difficult government bureaucracy, Sibal said that they "should not be worried about the normal trappings" involved in setting up a university here because their entrance will be governed by a separate statute that does not involve existing regulatory agencies.

Any foreign higher-educational institution allowed into India — if unaided by the Indian government — will be able to determine its own tuition and curricula, he said. But it will have to seek accreditation in India, and will not be able to repatriate profits.

"We are not going to sort of minutely look at these things to interfere and intervene, but we must make sure their quality is consistent with what we want," said Sibal, who is a graduate of Harvard University's law school and also India's former science and technology minister. "When you set up a course in India it may be Harvard in the U.S., but it has to be accredited here."

When asked whether foreign institutions will have to comply with India's quota laws, which set aside a percentage of seats for students from various castes, Sibal implied that they would not, provided that they do not accept federal or state government support, like private universities in India.

A new commission being set up by the Indian government at Sibal's recommendation will replace a myriad of regulatory agencies, in hopes of increasing clarity and reducing red tape in the accreditation process. Sibal explained that this commission will review applications from foreign institutions wishing to enter India, but said it will not have the authority to approve them, implying that his ministry will have the final say.

Objections to opening India to foreign educators remain strong in India. Opponents frequently point to the high tuition rates institutions abroad charge and say they do not want to see the same happen here. But Sibal dismissed such concerns, noting that that is already happening in India's private higher-education sector. He added that if a foreign institution plans on charging what would be considered a high rate in India, he would advise it to think twice. "I think any good education provider will be sensitive to such concerns," Sibal said.

The minister did stress, though, that foreign higher-education providers allowed into India cannot repatriate any profits to their home campus.

"Look, nobody is against profit," he said, "but it should not be distributed to shareholders. The profit should be plowed back." He suggested that 75 percent of such profits should be reinvested into the Indian campus and the remaining 25 percent should go into a reserve fund in India owned by the university.

Sibal said he was optimistic that opposition within India to foreign universities will diminish.

"The people of India are ready for it," he said, adding that he expects that a long-delayed bill to allow and regulate the entry of foreign higher education institutions will be passed before next July, when the next academic year begins.

Sibal framed the issue within the broader process of globalization that has affected all nations. "If you ask me, this process of a global economy moving forward started first with the services sector. Then the manufacturing sector ventured out, and I've been saying the time is right, the moment is right for the educational sector," he said. "If nations want to get closer to each other and develop a strategic partnership the best way to do it is through investment in education because that's what brings people together."

The government's renewed interest in foreign university partnerships has garnered the attention of the Obama administration. Representatives of the two governments have begun meeting to discuss educational collaboration. Sibal noted that he had met William J. Burns, U.S. under secretary for political affairs, just that morning to discuss the creation of an India-U.S. Education Council.

"We would like to collaborate with [American universities] on a whole range of issues," he said. "I personally think that whatever proposals come our way, we are willing to consider them, whether it is vocational training, research collaborations, public-private partnerships, certification processes, diplomas, degrees, 100-percent owned universities or joint ventures."